10 November, 2019
08 February, 2021
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COVID-19 changes outlook on life for Finland captain and aspiring doctor Pelander

HELSINKI (Finland) - When the dark cloud of the coronavirus spread across Europe earlier this year, it proved a pivotal time for Finnish forward Sofia Pelander, who was closer than most to the pandemic.

As many of her fellow athletes dealt with time on their hands during lockdowns across the continent, the Susiladies captain was working in a Swedish hospital.

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In what proved a demanding but rewarding period for the aspiring doctor, Pelander has revealed how the experience has altered her entire outlook on life.

She explained: "I was in the Department of Urology in my role as a Junior Doctor and while I didn't work directly each day on the coronavirus, I have a huge respect for my hospital colleagues always on the frontline.

"They were working some crazy hours and the environment was not great because of all the protective equipment. There was a lot of pressure and some of my own direct colleagues were redeployed to work in intensive care. People had to do new things they'd never done before and learn new skills to help out.

"Everyone working in the hospital came together. It was still tough, of course, and especially for all those people who lost loved ones."

In has turned out to be something of a journey of self-discovery for Pelander. Not only recognizing just how much she loves the other part of her twin-track career, but also appreciating how much the summer has shaped her newfound appetite to enjoy what life does bring her.

She declared: "Basketball has always been my one passion for the whole of my life. But this summer and maybe because I was working at the hospital for a lot longer than I would have ordinarily done, I realized that being a doctor is a job that I also love. I was so happy to realize that there is truly something else that I am passionate about along with basketball."

"Also after these past months, I realize more than ever we shouldn't take anything for granted. You never know when it is the last game of basketball, or the last time you are talking to loved ones. Of course we need to move on and not be afraid, but it's good to keep in mind that anything can happen and be grateful for all the good stuff in your life."


The experience of 2020 has also opened the eyes of Pelander as to how much basketball and her medical role are related. In fact, she is also now imploring more to be made of the wider skills that many athletes have.

She mused: "Working at the hospital and playing basketball have so many of the same elements. You have to rely on teamwork and communicate well. You have to admit your mistakes and sometimes be a good leader.

"This overlaps to life in general and maybe more athletes could realize it when looking for careers after basketball or as an extra job away from the season.

"By playing basketball professionally, you can gain good characteristics to use elsewhere in life. We are able to work for a common goal, we're committed, disciplined and not afraid to work hard. We have played team sport all of our lives, so it comes easily to work with different types of people and deal with pressure."

The 28-year-old is also grateful for the fact that she has put in the extra work to pursue her dual career and it has made life easier to contemplate in the current climate.

"With the challenges of the coronavirus, I feel lucky to now have something else to fall back on because it's all so uncertain for everybody now," stated Pelander, who currently plays for Herner TC in Germany.

"I don't have the pressure that I need to play basketball until I am 35 or 40. If something happens or I didn't feel passionate, I have another great option."

Not that the dual career path was particularly well planned.

"As something of a late bloomer basketball-wise, I had this conversation with my dad who told me that I had to be realistic and I was never going to be a professional player," recalled Pelander.

"It sounded really harsh, but I agreed at that time. It sounds like he is a horrible dad, but he really isn't - he is very supportive."

Opting to go to medical school to pursue being a doctor, the basketball bug kept biting her and after three years of studying at university and playing in her homeland, she switched to Prague. That in turn led to her getting a first professional contract in Sweden. While it has taken a lot of work since to resume her studies and continue to play, it's been worthwhile.

She said: "I am so thankful to basketball because it has helped me play and study in different places and learn new languages. It was always a good option to study and play. Yes, it's tough sometimes and you just have to solve problems that come your way with doing both.

"It's been a good balance actually, because if the basketball was not going so well, it was good to go and then see people who knew nothing about the sport. On the other hand, after a long day studying, it was great to go to practice and get everything off my mind."


Now Pelander is focused squarely on success in the FIBA Women's EuroBasket 2021 Qualifiers as her team tries to respond to a fruitless first window when they go up against Ukraine and Portugal.

"It was disappointing for us to play so badly in the last window," she admitted.

"It's been a long time since we won any game in the Qualifiers and we were actually feeling confident and thinking we were going to do it. But we couldn't bring our good game on the court and ended up losing big.

"This past summer the national team has been working out a lot and we even had two practice games. I was stuck in Sweden so couldn't play, but I think it showed that we have a good energy in the team and everybody is ready to use this new chance to play some good basketball and take that win as well."

Despite not winning games regularly at the international level, does Pelander truly believe that one day Finland can grace the FIBA Women's EuroBasket Final Round?

"I think for sure because we have a lot of young and talented players who have a lot of potential," she said.

"There have also been some changes in the national team in terms of an organizational perspective. I think we are going to get results and with a young team, I am sure that if we keep working hard we can make it sooner or later."

Time will tell if her optimism is well placed about Finland's prospects. Ideally the legendary Taru Tuukkanen would be a few years younger and still their leading player. That would have meant combining more closely in her prime with emerging teenage sensation Awak Kuier. 

"Taru is amazing," smiled Pelander. 

"She is basically a point guard in a center body. She thinks like a playmaker and has this amazing basketball IQ. She has such a big love for basketball and is still passionate about it. She is always ready to practice and just loves basketball. It tells you everything about her that she is now 42 years old and still ready and playing in the Finnish top league.

"I saw on social media the other week that she was there giving behind-the-back passes to her teammates. She is just an incredible player who has such a big heart for the game.

"Meanwhile Awak has so much potential and is just so athletic. I think that she has everything to be the best. She is still so young and I am so excited to see her journey and where she can end up getting to," concluded Pelander.

Beginning the Group G bubble in Odivelas, Portugal with a matchup against Ukraine on Thursday, November 12, the currently winless Finland will then take on the bubble hosts Portugal on Saturday, November 14.